Scott LaFaro, The Short Life of a Master Bassist
One of the most substantial biographies I’ve read in recent years is the 2009 publication that Helene LaFaro-Fernandez devoted to her brother Scott. The great bassist is best known for his work with the Bill Evans Trio between 1959 and ’61, and for the tragic car accident that claimed his life on July 6, 1961, two weeks after the trio’s legendary performance at the Village Vanguard. LaFaro burned like a meteorite, rising to the top rank of bassists in a few short years and working with a Who’s Who of jazz greats in the compressed time frame preceding his death at age 25. Pianist Walter Norris described him as a "wild fire," and said "he never used any stimulants to enhance life, but his every moment was seriously lived to the fullest." Lafaro's innovative bass playing, which combined virtuoso technique with a counter-melodic conception, was captured in all its glory at the Vanguard on June 25, 1961. The two albums released by Riverside Records from that fabled performance, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, have long stood as his epitaph.
Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro recounts how three days after his appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival with the Stan Getz Quartet, he’d driven to Geneva, NY to take care of some business related to his mother’s home there. Scotty grew up in Geneva, where his father Joe, who’d played with the Paul Whiteman and Dorsey Brothers orchestras, earned a living as a violinist and shared his fondness for both classical music and big band jazz with his children. Helene says that she and Scotty were taken to hear Tony Bennett, the Mills Brothers, Dizzy Gillespie and numerous others. She recalls that Zoot Sims so impressed her brother that he was “impatient for the intermission to end,” and that bassist Leroy Vinnegar “hummed all the while he was playing, a habit Scotty later developed as well.” Helene says he talked about seeing Duke Ellington “for weeks, shaking his head in disbelief of how…they could fool with the melody and make it so much more.” As for religion, she says that whenever she’s asked, “I always answer, ‘We went wherever the music was best.’ That was Dad’s criterion, be it a mass at a Roman Catholic church or Friday evening Shabbat dinner at the cantor’s home.”
Scotty’s first instruments were piano, clarinet, and tenor saxophone. It wasn’t until he left for Ithaca College, where music majors were required to play a stringed instrument, that he first played bass. He proved to be a natural for the instrument, which obsessed him, and early in his sophomore year he went on the road with Buddy Morrow’s orchestra. Brockton-born alto player and clarinetist Dick Johnson was also on the band. He told Helene that “Scott lived for the bass…He was looking all the time to play. He would have played twenty-four hours a day if he could…He was learning a mile a minute.”
Morrow’s outfit had a big hit with “Night Train.” The bandleader told Helene, “We were a band which was dedicated at the time to mainly rhythm and blues. We were the kind that played a fraction, a millimeter behind. We had to have a strong rhythm section and he was definitely of that caliber…He was a dedicated person…intolerant of anyone who wasn’t giving his best.”
LaFaro left Morrow and settled in Los Angeles in 1957. “I don’t blame him,” said Morrow. “He was a tremendous talent [who] wanted to go on to greener pastures.” Over the next two years, Scotty toured the country with Chet Baker, and worked around L.A. with Hampton Hawes, Harold Land, Buddy DeFranco, Richie Kamuca, Joe Gordon, and Stan Kenton. He played sessions at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, and roomed with fellow bassist Charlie Haden, who recalled the first time LaFaro mentioned Bill Evans. “I remember one time Scotty came home with an LP under his arm. He was excited. He said, ‘Man, you’ve gotta hear this. This is the best piano player I’ve ever heard’.” It was Evans’s 1956 debut album, New Jazz Conceptions.
Jade Visions is suffused with the perspective of an admiring, yet candid sister who overcame the grief of her beloved brother's sudden death and drew inspiration from friends and fans who urged her to write this richly evocative and musically illuminating volume.
Scotty also befriended the pianist-composer Victor Feldman, and recorded with him and drummer Stan Levey in January 1958. Though he’d previously appeared on Golden Trombone with Buddy Morrow, The Arrival of Victor Feldman was essentially the first LP that showcased his singular gifts. Both Nat Hentoff and Ralph J. Gleason took note. Hentoff heard LaFaro as “the most important new bassist since Paul Chambers and Wilbur Ware,” and added, “It may be necessary to add for those hearing LaFaro for the first time that his bass is not electronically amplified. That huge sound and strength of attack is finger-sprung alone.” Gleason commented, “It is, however, as a vehicle for bassist Scott LaFaro that the LP really impresses.” Later in the year, he toured and recorded with the Cal Tjader-Stan Getz Sextet. John Tynan wrote in Downbeat that “the rhythm duo [LaFaro and Billy Higgins] were the ‘baddest’ cats on the date. LaFaro is a potent cup of tea…a brilliant future is in store for this youthful bassist from Geneva, N.Y.”
(Film footage of LaFaro is extremely rare. He's seen here playing "Cherry" and "Chart of My Heart" with saxophonist Richie Kamuca's Quintet on a Stars of Jazz television broadcast on April 7, 1958. The group includes Victor Feldman, Stan Levey, and trombonist Frank Rosolino. "Route 66" songwriter Bobby Troup was the show's host.)
LaFaro signed on with Stan Kenton for a tour in the spring of 1959. Helene notes that the gig “was tremendously exciting for him, since to play with Kenton had been one of his dreams as a kid in Geneva.” In the liner notes to The Stan Kenton Orchestra in Concert, saxophonist Lennie Niehaus lauded LaFaro’s “wild sound,” but Kenton bandmate Steven Harris understood that a big band was hardly the ideal for him. In Jade Visions he says, “Scott wasn’t what one would consider a big band bass player. We all knew something important was going to happen with this guy.”
Jade Visions is suffused with the perspective of an admiring, yet candid sister who overcame the grief of her beloved brother’s sudden death and drew inspiration from friends and fans who urged her to write this richly evocative and musically illuminating volume. Helene makes no secret of LaFaro’s exacting standards and competitive personality, and she quotes many who testify to the same. Pianist Pat Moran, who led a trio that Scott toured and recorded with in 1958, says he was “was very aware of his genius and used to love to go into clubs and intimidate bass players…He was quite a character, lots of fun.” Moran is little known today as Patti Moran McCoy, but in 1960 LaFaro was quoted in a profile written by Martin Williams for Jazz Review, “I don’t even like any of my records except maybe the first one I did with Pat Moran.”
Steve Kuhn, who felt a brotherly kinship with Scotty and says his sudden death was the “first major loss of my life,” describes him as “very strong-willed.” (He also says that LaFaro, who was a fan of Formula One and sports car racing, “drove a little too friskily for my taste.”) A case in point was LaFaro’s departure from Kenton, which was precipitated by his displeasure with the band’s new drummer, a situation that would repeat itself in ’61 when he insisted that Stan Getz replace drummer Pete LaRoca. In the latter case, Getz fired LaRoca and hired Roy Haynes, but Kenton wasn't about to be second-guessed. He stuck with his new hire, offered Scotty the option of plane fare to New York or L.A., and showed him the door.
Upon returning to L.A., LaFaro phoned his friend Herb Geller, who was then playing alto with Benny Goodman in New York. Geller said Goodman was unhappy with his current bassist, and offered to recommend Scotty but cautioned, “Benny’s very conservative, don’t do any of those fast things you can do. Don’t get fancy, no double beats…Play what’s written.” LaFaro flew east, passed the audition, and signed on for a six-week tour of one-nighters with Goodman. Geller recalls that at the end of Scotty’s first night with the clarinetist, the two went “around to hear Bill Evans. Paul Motian was on drums, Nobby Totah on bass. Scotty sat in. There was great rapport. Bill had first heard Scotty with Chet Baker three years earlier…Not long after we were back off the Goodman tour, there was a call waiting for Scotty…that Bill wanted him to work with him.”
The first meeting of what became known as “the trio” took place at a Tony Scott recording date on October 28 and 29, 1959. The highlight of the session was Scott’s original, “Misery (to Lady Day).” Evans’ biographer Peter Pettinger said of the dedication to Billie Holiday, “Not much happens, but a wavelength is established. For Evans, ‘Misery’ offered a glimpse of a relationship to come.”
Two months later, on December 28, 1959, the Bill Evans Trio made its premiere recording for Riverside, Portrait in Jazz. In his liner notes, producer Orrin Keepnews focused on the phenomenon of Bill Evans the pianist, but the lone paragraph devoted to the “other members” of the trio noted that they weren’t “limited to…conventional rhythmic backing,“ and cited “Autumn Leaves,” as a harbinger of things to come. He quoted Evans, who said, “I’m hoping the trio will grow in the direction of simultaneous improvisation…If the bass player, for example, hears an idea that he wants to answer, why should he just keep playing a background?”
Scotty, of course, heard and answered plenty of ideas. Ted Gioia, in his 1997 survey, The History of Jazz, said, "LaFaro took far greater chances, departing markedly from the traditional walking line, instead offering countermelodies and guitar-like phrases. His sense of time was freer, less tied to the ground beat, than any jazz bassist had previously acheived...It is not going too far to see this short-lived trio as redefining the nature of the jazz rhythm section."
Jade Visions credits the demo session that LaFaro made with Steve Kuhn and Pete LaRoca nearly a year later as one where this conversational approach to group dynamics was evident. In Jeff Campbell’s essay, “Scott LaFaro: The Complete Musician” (an addendum to Jade Visions), he singles out the trio’s performance of “So What,” saying that “LaFaro and Kuhn engage in a brief musical dialogue just prior to the return of the theme…[improvising] melodic ideas that are intertwined in a conversational manner.” Campbell notes that LaFaro’s accompaniment on “What’s New” is “much more active…than the traditional conventions of ballad playing.”
“It is an interesting fact,” Campbell asserts, “That the earliest example of LaFaro’s active, conversational ballad accompaniment was with Steve Kuhn and not Bill Evans.” When I ran this claim by Kuhn, he said, “I don’t agree with that necessarily. Scott was already playing like that with Bill.”
Recorded on November 29, 1960, the four-song session wasn’t officially released until 2005. Like Evans, Kuhn, who’d arrived on the New York scene in 1959 as a 21-year-old Harvard grad, was being managed by Helen Keane. She proposed the demo as something to shop around to record labels; alas, nothing came of it. Kuhn is uncertain about exactly where he met LaFaro, but says it was most likely when he heard the Evans trio at the Five Spot late in 1959. He says they formed an “immediate friendship,” and that “musically, I’d never felt such an instant connection. He had an incredible ear. He heard what I was doing at the piano, and I heard what he was doing. I adored him, and I was thrilled to be able to work with him. We were like brothers.”
Six months before the session with Kuhn, LaFaro recorded with trumpeter Booker Little on April 13 and 15. Little, another ill-fated star of the period who died at 23 in October 1961, described LaFaro in the liner notes as “distant, but close—a paradox that resolves only for those who were simpatico.” He also recognized Scotty’s distinctiveness as an innovator who was “much more of a conversationalist behind you than any other bassist I know…[He’s] technically…about the greatest bassist we have.” Remarking on the solo LaFaro plays on “Bee Tee’s Minor Plea,” the trumpeter said, “The bass is a crude and rude instrument, but Scott makes it into something else.” Helene says Scotty would have loved being described as “’something else,’ since I could remember how excited [he] was when he brought around to play for me the first record of Ornette’s he owned, Something Else.”
In May 1960, the Bill Evans Trio joined in a program at Circle in the Square that was devoted to Gunther Schuller’s jazz compositions. Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and others were also featured, and LaFaro drew notice from Dan Morgenstern in Metronome for a solo “remarkable for its technical skill and musical weight.” The piece was Schuller’s “Variants on a Theme by John Lewis (Django),” which he would also appear on in December when Schuller’s work was recorded for the Atlantic Records release, Jazz Abstractions. LaFaro is heard soloing while George Duvivier plays the bass riff that Percy Heath had introduced on the first recordings of "Django" by the Modern Jazz Quartet.
LaFaro began working regularly with Ornette after Evans became ill with hepatitis in July 1960 and went to Florida to recuperate at his parent’s home amid rumors that he’d died. Evans’s illness resulted in the cancellation of a long engagement opposite Thelonious Monk at the Jazz Gallery. Ornette’s group with Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell played the Village Gate for three weeks in August and September followed by engagements in Philadelphia and Detroit. At that year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, LaFaro performed with both the Coleman Quartet and Gunther Schuller. Ornette drew mixed reviews everywhere including Monterey, where his performance of “You’ll Never Know” elicited a scathing review from John Tynan, who said it was “patently bad, disturbed, and utterly unhappy.” Still, he singled out LaFaro for his “brilliant technique and ideas [that] were remarked on by all.”
Scotty was given to introspective thoughts about where the music was going and what he recognized as the increasing distance between jazz’s new direction and the public. In a December 29, 1960 letter addressed to his lover Gloria Gabriel, the dancer to whom he dedicated “Gloria’s Step,” he wrote, “One important thing is that I realize day by day the true artist and musician is becoming more and more meaningless in terms of public comprehension. This brings about the situation of whether I should spend these hours and months developing what I seem to be able to foresee, or should I dump it and get another job as an entertainer again. My day consists of such a singular preoccupation—the physicology of music. I’m in the position of having nothing you can put your finger on for sale.”
Evans’s drug addiction was also a matter of concern for LaFaro. Orrin Keepnews told Helene that when the trio recorded its second session, Explorations, on February 2, 1961, “Scott was being very explicit about his problem; he was very reluctant to go back on the road unless it was for a lot more money. As he put it, being out with a leader who was a junkie put him at risk of being stranded…The tensions ebbed and flowed [that] afternoon, but strangely enough we were accomplishing what we had set out to do…The lesson to be learned here is probably something about the value of professionalism.”
While LaFaro was cautious about touring with Evans and eschewed drug use (Kuhn says he was “healthy as a pig…didn’t smoke, drink, use drugs, but he liked to drive fast”), he was intrigued by Bill’s interest in Zen meditation, which he practiced and discussed with Helene when he stayed with her during a Getz engagement in L.A. He used a Zen epigram in the closing of his letter to Gloria: “I’m trying to remember a bit of Zen I like so well: ‘If you seek the fruits of…good action…so shall they escape you.’ I try to smile everyday with that.”
When I asked Kuhn if Scotty had similar anxieties about touring with Getz, he said no, but he recalled a bandstand incident between the bassist and the tenor player whom Kuhn called “extraordinarily paranoid.” One night at the Blackhawk in San Francisco, he said, “they clashed. Stan was playing a melody, and Scott began doubling it. Right there on stage, Stan stopped playing and yelled, ‘MF, I’ve got the melody’!” Notwithstanding flair-ups of this kind, Kuhn says that Getz held LaFaro in the highest regard. “Scott was extremely picky and choosy, and he wanted to call the trio. Stan said fine.” Kuhn and drummer Pete LaRoca were Scotty’s choices, but in the midst of a two-week engagement at the Sutherland Hotel on Chicago’s Southside, LaFaro had got tired of LaRoca’s playing. “He played a lot of top, cymbals, and Scotty wanted more drums,” says Kuhn. “He insisted that Stan fire LaRoca and hire Roy Haynes, and Stan was so impressed with how strong and unique he was that he acceded to his wishes.”
LaFaro continued to divide his time between Getz, Ornette, and Evans in 1961. He recorded with pianist Don Friedman as well. Friedman first heard LaFaro with Buddy Morrow, and then they worked together with Chet Baker. When Scotty came east to play with Goodman, he shared a cold-water flat in the East 70’s with Freidman that went for $18 a month. They worked together with vocalist Dick Haymes, whose road show included dancers and a comic. Gloria Gabriel was one of the dancers. Friedman relates in Jade Visions, “He used to play my piano, and was very interested in minor 7th chords with the flat 5th. In fact, the tune ‘Gloria’s Step,’ was an outgrowth of his interest in those chords.” He also recalls getting the call from Scotty to spell the ailing Evans “for a couple of nights at the Jazz Gallery.” Freidman, LaRoca, and LaFaro recorded a demo session in ’61 that’s now available in a companion CD to the biography, Pieces of Jade.
The Evans Trio’s appearance at the Village Vanguard opposite Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in June 1961 culminated with the legendary recordings made on the last day of the two-week engagement, Sunday, June 25. Bassist Marc Johnson, who was with Evans between 1978 and his death in 1980, wrote in the liner notes for Pieces of Jade that the Vanguard performance was “the highest measure of Scott’s musical vision.” In Jade Visions, he says, “I must have listened to those recordings…thousands of times…To this day, I still don’t see how Scott articulated his ideas with such startling clarity and velocity.”
Johnson also speaks for the continuing hold that the recordings have on listeners touched by their emotional richness. “All that listening to the trio had another effect on me. [My] early years at the university were thoroughly engaging intellectually but were also a time of deep introspection. Those years of self-discovery can be challenging at times and those moments found their perfect expression in …the Village Vanguard Sessions…I listened to that music for so many hours that it became my constant ‘silent’ companion and a beacon of hope.”
Joe LaBarbera, who drummed in the trio with Evans and Johnson, says, “Bill said regarding Scott and the music, that Scott hated it when it remained the same. So they were constantly trying for fresh approaches and fresh improvisations…And Bill told me, I remember it exactly, ‘If I played the same lick on a tune two nights in a row, the next time I playe dit Scott would play it with me in harmony—he would actually harmonize it so that at that point it was time for me to get rid of that lick and move on to something else’.” Is that what LaFaro was trying to bring to Getz’s attention at the Blackhawk?
Following the Vanguard engagement, LaFaro played with Getz, Steve Kuhn, and Roy Haynes at Newport on July 2. Three of the tunes from their set—“Baubles, Bangles and Beads”; “Where Do You Go”; and “Airegin”– were released on CD in 1994. Haynes shared with Scotty a fastidiousness about clothing, and he’d just been named to Esquire’s Best-Dressed list. He remembered that “Scotty was dressed up” for the Newport appearance. In 2007, 46 years later, Roy introduced Helene to the great bassist Christian McBride. She writes, “What he said not only had an impact on me, but seemed to sum up much of what I had been hearing as I talked to musicians. Christian said, ‘Scotty’s playing was the bible for bass players…Jimmy Blanton the old testament, Scotty the new’.”
LaFaro spent the evening of July 5 with old friends in Geneva then drove 80 miles west with Frank Ottley to visit another friend in Warsaw who was house-sitting at a place with a good stereo. Chuck and Gap Mangione were among the locals hanging out that night, and Jade Visions includes Gap’s recollection of listening to Chet Baker’s recording of “Grey December” with Scotty. Mangione remembers LaFaro calling Baker “an American tragedy,” and says, “Over the years, [Scott’s] using the term ‘an American tragedy’ still strikes me as incredibly ironic and portentous [given what happened] that night.”
At about 1:45 on the morning of July 6, LaFaro apparently fell asleep at the wheel and veered off Route 5-20, hitting a tree and killing himself and Ottley instantly. The Getz Quartet, with either Henry Grimes or Jimmy Garrison spelling LaFaro (Kuhn can’t recall for certain), was playing that week at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. Kuhn remembers hearing that it was a St. Christopher medal that LaFaro always wore that helped to identify his badly burned body. He says that word of the accident reached Getz “over the wire” through his manager Jack Whittemore, and that all were incredulous at the news. The group attended the funeral in Geneva, which Kuhn adds was “closed casket.”
LaFaro's death was devastating to Bill Evans. In Meet Me at Jim & Andy's: Jazz Musicians and Their World, Gene Lees wrote, "The shock of LaFaro's death stayed with Bill for years, and he felt vaguely guilty about it...He felt that because of his heroin habit he had made insufficient use of [their] time together...After LaFaro's death, Bill was like a mane with a lost love, always looking to find its replacement."
In 1966, Evans spoke with George Clabin about what he called his "complex...and quick relationship" with Scotty, and said his technique was "built through...intuitive insight...and fire, as some kind of a spark in him which took over and he would just grab the bass and he would work and work and work and work and he would just lay it down."
LaFaro was honored in 2012 in Geneva, where a street was renamed Scott LaFaro Drive and an annual Scott LaFaro Day was inaugurated. It will be observed on his birthday anniversary, April 3.